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Navigating the transition: MGH experts share top health tips for students moving away from home

By Isabel Terrell

Moving away from home for college or university is an exciting time—but the transition can be stressful on the body and the mind. Between late-night studying, shared living spaces, unfamiliar surroundings and less time for home-cooked meals, it’s important to make sure students are well equipped with the tools they need to do their best at school and get the most out of their post-secondary experiences. We asked four experts from different professions around the hospital to share their top healthy living tips for first-time students moving away from home.

Richard Scott
Richard Scott

Mental health with Richard Scott, therapist 

Richard specializes in youth and adolescent mental health. He’s been a social worker for about 30 years, and currently works as a therapist in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, where he helps many families transition into university. These are his tips:

Build your support network:

“Get connected with student health services, particularly if you’re moving away from supports you’ve typically relied on. It could be a therapist like myself, a psychiatrist, physician, or educational supports you had in high school. Most campuses have these types of services. The key is to reach out, not only to get mental health or medical support, but also to get additional supports if you’re eligible for modifications or accommodations for your learning.

If you’re already predisposed to levels of anxiety or depression, the transition to post-secondary school could trigger some of those symptoms. Getting involved in campus life during the weeks leading up to class helps students become acquainted with the environment so that by the time classes start they know where they’re going and have the opportunity to make some connections. That helps counter isolation and loneliness.

Healthy balance=healthy mind:

“Regardless of what you do, whether you’re a student, or a professional in a work setting, I think your life should be a healthy balance between the demands of work or school and activities bring passion into your life, whether that be art, music, sports or clubs. You can get a lot of enjoyment and passion from your work. But also know that there are other things going on in your life that bring you meaning and pleasure. I would also recommend incorporating wellness based activities into your routine, like working out, yoga or meditation. And make sure you see your friends! I think the key thing is make sure you have some fun, and get enough rest, whatever that means for you, in addition to what you need to do for school.”

Wayne Lee
Wayne Lee

Infection prevention with Wayne Lee, manager of Infection Control and Prevention

Keep up with hygiene 101:

“In dorms, you’re bringing everyone together physically and microbiologically.  The key to staying healthy involves implementing common sense. We’re home to bugs (bacteria and viruses) and during certain times of the year, certain bugs are more rampant than others. A lot of disease transmission can be solved through just washing your hands and practicing good coughing and sneezing etiquette. The way bugs get into your system is either through eating, inhaling or through touching mucus membranes like your eyes after bugs have colonized on your hands. You can’t see these microscopic hazards we’re talking about. Many dorms aren’t set up to have sinks in the actual bedrooms, but you can get alcohol sanitary rinse to keep on you to zap your hands of germs. Many microbes replicate every 20 minutes- so just think, how much has grown on your hands since you’ve last washed them? Yes, university is an exciting time. Stay healthy and don’t forget about health basics.”

Katherine Vandenbussche
Katherine Vandenbussche

Nutrition with Katherine Vandenbussche, registered dietitian and professional practice clinical resource leader

Don’t forget to break the ‘fast’:

 “Eating your breakfast has been shown to improve concentration, alertness, memory and overall health. It’s important to eat breakfast every day and to think about the quality of the breakfast you are eating. When you’re having breakfast, try to make sure you’re having something from every food group. Think about opportunities for quick breakfasts that you can make ahead of time and eat on the go. Overnight oats with frozen fruit or egg/cheese and spinach breakfast wraps are two ideas that you can make ahead of time in batches and pull out of the freezer during those extra busy weeks.”

Snacking and studying:

“Often times when we’re studying, we look for a snack out of habit. This can be dangerous because our attention is on studying and we are not focusing on what, how much or why we are eating. Before you snack make sure you are not thirsty- try drinking some water. If you still want a snack then make sure your snack includes at least two food groups. Eating protein and carbs together has shown to reduce hunger. Some ideas for healthy snacks are popcorn with grated cheese, granola and yogurt or apple slices with nut butter. Portion control is also important. Try to find ways to be mindful of your portions. I think of them as “speed bumps” for eating. Don’t just put a big bag of chips in front of you. Instead, put some in a bowl and put the rest of the bag away. You have to stop and think before you go for that second bowl. By doing this you’re more mindful of how much you’re eating.”

Emily Ambos
Emily Ambos

Emotional intelligence with Emily Ambos, staff learning specialist

Emily is an expert at providing teams with the tools they need to get their work done under high-pressure circumstances. Prior to her role at MGH, Emily ran programs for student development as a residence assistant, so she’s well versed in how to help students thrive in any scenario.

Self-awareness and stress management:

“We all have that early warning system that will tell us when we are under pressure. Being self-aware is the basis of emotional intelligence, so know what triggers you. Is it group work? Roommates? Early morning classes? If we acknowledge that we are self-aware, we can take a breath and then act, which helps us respond to stressors in more appropriate or effective ways.”

“The amygdala controls your ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’ response. You need your neocortex at school, which is where all of your complex thinking, problem solving, and prioritizing comes into place. We know that if we are under stress and under pressure, the amygdala will take over, and you lose the ability to be able to draw onto your neocortex. Once you understand your amygdala’s reactions, and when it’s in the driver’s seat, you can employ techniques to make sure that you are not completely disengaging your neocortex.”

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